27 November 2023

The Man with a Butler Did It

This month I read two British murder mysteries, published twenty years apart, in which the culprit turned out to be the local bigwig killing someone who was blackmailing him.

(I’m withholding the names of those books to protect the dénouements.)

Now I’m trying to figure out if that trope suggests an ingrained suspicion of privilege, showing that the local wealthy squire is not to be trusted.

Or do those books reinforce social hierarchies, since both these murderers had risen from the lower classes to their high places in society through blackmailable methods?

25 November 2023

“A society of men here called high-binders”

The California Gold Rush made San Francisco a boom town. It attracted Americans from the East Coast, of course, and also people from southern China.

Within a couple of decades, some Americans of northern European backgrounds began to view Chinese immigration as a problem. In particular, they pointed to violent male criminals who trafficked young women and fought men from other organizations.

To label that type of criminal, newspaper editors and government officials reached back several decades.

The Weekly Alta California for 5 Feb 1870 referred to a ring of Chinese immigrants as “a gang of ‘Celestial highbinders’.” In this period “Celestial” was a codeword for Chinese, China being the “Celestial Empire.”

On 2 May 1876, at a California state senate hearing on “The Social, Moral, and Political Effect of Chinese Immigration,” the Sacramento police officer Charles P. O’Neil testified:
On I Street there are from one hundred and fifty to two hundred of what we call “highbinders,” living off the houses of prostitution, and they are mixed up with the gamblers. You might call them hoodlums.
The U.S. Congress formed a Joint Special Committee to Investigate Chinese Immigration, and in the fall of 1876 China trader Thomas H. King testified about “the large force of the six companies’ high-binders, who can always be seen guarding [contract laborers].”

A senator asked: “What do you mean by ‘highbinders’?”

King replied: “I mean men who are employed by these companies here to hound and spy on these Chinese and pursue them if they do not comply with their contract as they see fit to judge it.”

“It is a term to express Chinese persons who act in that capacity?”

“I have often heard the term applied to designate bad men. It is an English term, I believe.”

Later the Rev. Augustus W. Loomis, a Presbyterian missionary, objected to King’s claim:
…he expatiates about the high-binders, hired assassins, kept by the six companies to intimidate the coolies. These are simply assertions without proof. . . . I have heard the papers speak of them. I do not know of any such people.
But even Loomis acknowledged people were using the term.

At those same hearings, San Francisco police officer Michael A. Smith said:
There is also a society of men here called high-binders, or hatchet-men. . . . A great many of them carry a hatchet with the handle cut off; it may be about six inches long, with a handle and a hole cut in it; they have the handle sawed off a little, leaving just enough to keep a good hold.
Since “high-binders” had fallen out of use as a general term for hoodlums, Californians could seize on it to mean Chinese hoodlums in particular. In 1877, O. Gibson’s The Chinese in America stated:
…associations of Chinese villains and cut-throats have been formed for the purpose of protecting the owners of women and girls in their property rights, and of doing any other villainous business that comes to hand.

The San Francisco press know these men by the term of “Highbinders.”
In The Hatchet Men: The Story of the Tong Wars in San Francisco’s Chinatown (1962), Richard H. Dillon wrote:
While giving testimony during the 1870’s in regard to evildoing in Chinatown, Special Officer Delos Woodruff answered a question from the bench by saying, “A lot of highbinders came to the place—”

The judge interrupted him with a gesture of his hand. “What do you mean by ‘highbinders’?” His honor queried.

“Why,” replied Woodruff, “a lot of Chinese hoodlums.”

The judge persisted, “And that’s the term you apply to Chinese hoodlums, is it?”

“That’s what I call them,” responded Woodruff.
The source for this exchange is almost certainly an item in the 19 Mar 1893 (San Francisco) Morning Call, thus a recollection or reconstruction rather than a contemporaneous record. Woodruff resigned from the San Francisco police in 1874 after testifying that he had kicked back $25 per month to a friend of the police chief for his lucrative beat, and then suddenly moved out of state when that man came to trial. Despite that pedigree, other authors cite the exchange from Dillon’s book as establishing the term “highbinders.” But there are less impeachable examples from the 1870s.

“Highbinders” remained in near-constant use for the next several decades, losing its scare-quotes, its hyphen, and its initial capital. Even today, the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of the word notes the specific link to Chinese criminals. But, as I discussed earlier, it actually came from the opposite coast, and an earlier conflict between natives and immigrants.

(The picture above is a page from Harper’s Weekly in 1886 showing “The Chinese Highbinders in San Francisco” and their “Favorite Weapons.”)

24 November 2023

“High-binders” Escape from New York

As I recounted here, the term “High-binder” or “hide-binder” appeared in the New York press in late 1806 and early 1807 after disturbances in the streets around Christmas.

At first it referred to a particular set of anti-Catholic rowdies. Soon it was being slapped on working-class Catholics instead.

In subsequent newspaper items, we can see the term spread outside of New York, though still tied to that place of origin. The 28 Apr 1813 Tickler of Philadelphia described the neighborhood of “Gotham, (New York,)” as: “Here the sailor, the ropemaker, the cookey boys and hide-binders resort to enjoy the jollifications…”

By the 1830s, “high-binder” had become the standard form, and the word was one of many labels for criminals:
  • “among the thieves and high-binders of the world” (Philadelphia Daily Chronicle, 19 Apr 1832)
  • “a posse of high-binders” (Newburyport Herald, 4 Aug 1835)
  • “a gang of high-binders, so called” (New-York Daily Express, 6 Jul 1837)
  • “the most desperate high-binders that ever graced a drunken revel upon the ‘Five Points’” (Hudson River Chronicle of Ossining, 27 Mar 1838)
  • “a set of ‘high-binders’” (Baltimore Sun, 16 Sept 1839)
Most newspaper editors were still setting the word off in some way to acknowledge it could be unfamiliar to readers.

In 1839, one newspaper near the Mason-Dixon Line used the term to headline an article about gamblers, both black and white (Baltimore Sun, 31 October). Another claimed that New York’s political “ultras” were adopting that label among others to seem even more scruffy and democratic (Alexandria Gazette, 5 November).

Over the following decade, Americans began using the word for corrupt politicians, not just street-level criminals. Among the rising literati, both Edgar Allan Poe and James Kirke Paulding revived the form “hide-binder” to show they were in the know. But the label was losing its power and starting to sound stale.

TOMORROW: High-binders head west.

(The picture above is George Catlin’s 1827 view of the Five Points neighborhood, now at the Met.)

22 November 2023

The First High-Binders

I’ve been reading about San Francisco before the big earthquake of 1906, and one word that comes up a lot is “highbinder.”

Merriam-Webster defines that as “a professional killer operating in the Chinese quarter of an American city,” or alternatively “a corrupt politician.”

There were plenty of corrupt politicians in Gilded-Age San Francisco, but in the newspapers of the time and in histories since the term “highbinder” definitely meant a thug of Chinese extraction.

I wondered what the etymology of that term was. What were those men binding, and how high? Was is something to do with queues, or Chinese dress?

It turned out the answer lies in the early 1800s, and it has nothing to do with Chinese-American culture at all.

The term surfaced in New York City at the end of 1806. The Evening-Post of 26 December reported on a riot the evening before this way:
There has for some time existed in this city, in and about George and Charlotte-Streets, a desperate association of lawless and unprincipled vagabonds, calling themselves High-binders, and which, during the last winter, produced several riots, making the demolition of houses of ill-fame the ostensible object of their disorderly practices.
The Weekly Inspector of 27 December stated:
On Christmas Eve, a party of banditti, amounting, it is stated, to forty or fifty members of an association, calling themselves High-binders, assembled in front of St. Peter’s Church, in Barclay-street, expecting that the Catholic ritual would be performed with a degree of pomp and splendor, which has usually been omitted in this city. These ceremonies, however, not taking place, the High-binders manifested great displeasure, but were at length prevailed on to disperse.
I should clarify that these original High-binders wanted to jeer at and disrupt a high Catholic ceremony inside St. Peter’s Church (shown above), not to participate. They were a Protestant, probably nativist gang.

The High-binders’ actions on Christmas Eve provoked counterattacks by Irishmen the next day. Those fights escalated until a town watchmen was killed. Although the police arrested only Irishmen at first, the Republican Watch-Tower of 6 Jan 1807 (misdated 1806 by its printer) said, “It is shrewdly suspected that the murderer will yet be found among the ruffians denominated high binders.”

The Bowery Boys site tells the story of the Christmas Riot of 1806 here.

On 24 Jan 1807, the American Citizen, another New York paper, reported on the trials arising from that violence. Its editors did their best to sort out the sides. They also stated that the correct term was “hide-binders,” for men working in the leather trade.

Within just a few months the May 1807 Weekly Inspector published this item at the end of a column:
An American bull.—An American, speaking of the turbulent conduct of the “hide-binders,” observed that these low Irishmen were so used to being hung, that they could not live without it.
Just five months before the High-binders had burst onto the New York scene by besieging a Catholic church and then brawling with its Irish defenders. Now the term had become a pejorative label slapped onto “low Irishmen” since apparently only they could be thugs.

COMING UP: Spreading out of New York.

17 November 2023

The Return of “The Fuzzy Ghost”

This week I received my contributor’s copy of The Big Book of Things That Go Bump in the Night: A Collection of Utah Horror.

This anthology of “27 stories, poems, and flash fiction pieces, all geared toward kids” is published by Timber Ghost Press and available here.

My story, “The Fuzzy Ghost,” is much older than its target audience. It’s a tale about a family coming to terms with the death of a relative, and I wrote the first version in the 1990s after the death of my own older brother, Al.

At one point I had interest in the story from a kids’ magazine company, but the editor of the magazine I’d submitted to thought it would work better for the next-younger audience. I wrote another version, half the length to fit the second magazine’s specs. But for a story that depends on mood, that took away too much, and the revision didn’t sell.

Back then, kids’ magazines were practically the only market for such short fiction, and they had very strict limits on word counts. Technology has made internet magazines, micro-press anthologies, and even story vending machines viable, and that in turn has opened up the specs for stories.

Last year, as I continued to process the death of my mother, I spotted Timber Ghost Press’s call for submissions. I dug the latest draft of “The Fuzzy Ghost” out of my hard drive, updated it with specific period details, and sent it in. And now it’s come back to me inside a paperback book.

14 November 2023

“In the Land of Oz they use no money at all”

In The Road to Oz (1909), L. Frank Baum wrote:
“Money! Money in Oz!” cried the Tin Woodman. “What a queer idea! Did you suppose we are so vulgar as to use money here?” . . .

“If we used money to buy things with, instead of love and kindness and the desire to please one another, then we should be no better than the rest of the world,” declared the Tin Woodman. “Fortunately money is not known in the Land of Oz at all. We have no rich, and no poor; for what one wishes the others all try to give him, in order to make him happy, and no one in all Oz cares to have more than he can use.”
That contradicts this detail in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900):
…a man was selling green lemonade, and when the children bought it Dorothy could see that they paid for it with green pennies.
And also The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904), in which a ferryman asks for money before rowing Tip across a river, the Emerald City and the Winkie castle have treasuries, and all the characters recognize “dollar bills—and two-dollar bills—and five-dollar bills—and tens, and twenties, and fifties.”

Apparently something happened after Ozma came to the throne of Oz at the end of the latter book, producing an entirely different economic system that Baum explained more fully in The Emerald City of Oz (1910).

However, I was surprised to see that the very first mention of Oz doing without money actually appeared outside the series, and outside the canon. The Woggle-Bug Book, a storybook Baum wrote in 1905, contains this paragraph:
You see, in the Land of Oz they use no money at all, so that when the Woggle-Bug arrived in America he did not possess a single penny. And no one had presented him with any money since.
That book doesn’t offer any ethical lesson to go along with the lack of money, as the Tin Woodman would volunteer in The Road to Oz. It’s just another way that the Woggle-Bug’s native land differs from America.

While featuring a character from Oz, The Woggle-Bug Book is set in America, where we use money. It’s one of what I call Baum’s urban fantasies, taking place in a contemporary, multiethnic American city which nonetheless has magic (in that way contradicting the rules of the Oz books he wrote in the same period).

The Woggle-Bug Book and the Queer Visitors from the Marvelous Land of Oz comic page that preceded it were never listed as part of the Oz series, and Baum never referred back to them in his later stories. Thus, fans don’t treat whatever those books say about Oz as reliable for the rest of the series. Nonetheless, in that book Baum first tried out what would become a crucial detail of the Ozian utopia.